Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity and Resistance

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, “the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion – which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism – to be intimately related to the defense of human existence – survival, in the first place – as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing. Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threats: As Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems – radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other – the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion. As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations. Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia – that despotism is doomed, once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ fears of the power of the people. Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and setups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: One would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke – not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.” Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided – as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be – it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism – arguably following from Marx’s own works – and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital – species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine – any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: Consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from whom to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement that perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital – as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.” Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern – that of praxis – would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities that we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle – that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action – with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind – this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being by doing – and being – other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway. Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation – like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation. Undoubtedly, the threats aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench that sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: Think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those that hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis that may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.

This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize.